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Scene of the Crime interview

February 7, 2011 by Scene of the Crime

Graham Hurley is an award-winning former director and producer of documentaries in England who finally made a long-time dream come true by turning to fiction writing in 1990. Since that time he has penned a score of novels, beginning with such popular stand-alone thrillers as Rules of Engagement, The Perfect Soldier, and Permissible Limits, and since 2000, with the Joe Faraday series. The eleventh in that series, Borrowed Light, was published in England last November.

Set in Portsmouth, England, the Detective Inspector Joe Faraday books are noted for “tongue-in-cheek vitality: plenty of bling, and heavies with a penchant for violence,” according to London’s Financial Times. The Guardian also praised Hurley’s series as “convincing, well-crafted thrillers.” And Toronto’s Globe and Mail dubbed the Joe Farraday books a “superb British series set in Portsmouth.”

1. Describe your connection to your specific city or locale. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?

The Faraday series is emphatically rooted in Portsmouth. Without Pompey (as the locals call it), the books would never have been written. I happened across it, in the first place, because we moved there. I was writing one-off thrillers at the time, with big international settings, but the more I got to know Pompey, the more the place began to muscle its way into my fiction. In the end, we stayed nearly thirty years and – yes – we still go back.

2. What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?

The key to Pompey – says me – is its island setting. You’ve got nearly 200,000 people banged up together on this patch of marshy ground off the Hampshire coast. That makes it one of the densest-populated cities in Europe and gives the place its slightly claustrophobic feel. People look inward. Private space is precious. Poor and not-so-poor live cheek-by-jowl and you’re never more than a stone’s throw (sometimes literally) from areas of serious deprivation. It takes a while for the penny to drop but in many respects this is the UK writ small. It’s a pressure-cooker. It’s a city where all the fissures in our society are on public display. Whether you’re talking family breakdown, or substance abuse, or teenage pregnancy, or the challenges of secondary education, or football clubs in deep financial doo-doo, or tensions arising from immigration…it’s all there. At the same time this very special brew is leavened by what I’ve come to recognise as the Pompey Gene. Portsmouth owes its very existence to the Royal Navy. Pompey men (and occasionally women) cheerfully fought a succession of enemies: Dutch, Spanish, French, German, you name it. And the fighting goes on. A couple of decades ago, the 6.57 crew – a bunch of football hooligans – were exporting serious violence to the four corners of the Kingdom. And it still goes on. Pompey is a rough old place…and it shows (see extract below).

3. Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?

I like to think that Pompey is an irreplaceable element in the Faraday series. Why? Because it shapes both character and story in book after book, something evidenced by the huge popularity of the series amongst the Pompey diaspora overseas. One fan (now living in Queensland, Australia) recently wrote me that I’ve saved him the expense of regular return journeys to the city of his birth. Why? Because he simply has to read the latest Faraday for a catch-up.

4. How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you? In other words, similar to question 3, are you conscious of referring to your specific city or locale as you write?

Pompey, as you’ll have gathered, has seeped into the very fabric of the books. Scarcely a paragraph is untainted by the city. The books even smell of Pompey.

5. How does your protagonist interact with his/her surroundings? Is he/she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?

Faraday, as it happens, isn’t Pompey born-and-bred. He came to the city as a young widower and probationer-cop with a six-month old son who turned out to be deaf and dumb. In the years that followed he was largely pre-occupied with building bridges to Joe-Junior (“J-J”), but Pompey is a city that gets in your face and after a while Joe Senior realised that he was policing a community which was – in many respects – in a state of near-collapse. This offers a prism that makes the series what it is: a warts ‘n all portrait of English society during the first decade of the new millennium.

6. Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (i.e. those who actually live in your novels’ setting) reviewers think, for example. If published in a non English-speaking country, are your books in translation in that country, and if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?

As I’ve written above, Pompey ex-pats have been extremely kind about the series, as have many readers who still live in the city. It’s difficult to capture the essence of a particular place but the least of the debts I owe to Portsmouth is to at least make an honest attempt. I might not be flavour of the month with the local tourist board but one of my books – “The Price of Darkness” – was last year’s most-borrowed title from local libraries. Does my Pompey travel well? To date, it’s been translated into nine languages. The series has been bought by French TV and shooting is currently taking place for adaptations of “Angels Passing” (“Les Anges Brises de Somerstown”) and “Cut to Black” (“Les Quais de la Blanche”). The new Pompey? Le Havre…

7. Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share--the more humorous the better (we all have).

One of the USPs about the series is its authenticity. I work very hard to get the police procedural elements right (this is trickier than it might sound because the Men in Blue are forever moving the goalposts) and I always use real streets and real settings. In the early days, before I knew better, I also used real street numbers. This backfired spectacularly when the house of a prominent (and successful)local villain turned out to be occupied by a Crown Court judge. Thankfully, the guy had a sense of humour – not least because said (fictional) villain finally got his just desserts. Nowadays I count to the end of the street and add seven.

8. Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?

Extract from Angels Passing
Faraday was watching a tiny fishing smack butting in against the tide. The harbour mouth was narrow, barely a couple of hundred yards, another rite of passage for Pompey kids. Centuries ago, a heavy iron chain had been laid across to the Gosport shore, resting on the seabed. In times of war the chain could be raised, barring entrance to the harbour, and the remains of this primitive barrier were still visible, brown and rusting, at low tide. These days, of course, there were other ways of keeping the enemy at bay but the longer Faraday spent in the city, and the deeper he plumbed its depths, the more certain he became about what made the place tick.
Portsmouth owed its very existence to aggression. Without the vigorous push to expand British influence overseas, there would never have been a navy, and without a navy, Portsmouth would still be a slightly larger version of Hayling Island, a flat, spiritless chequerboard of bungalows, smallholdings and poorly-stocked corner shops, a perfect retirement location if you’d pretty much given up on real life. As it was, though, successive wars had been the making of Pompey, giving it pride and purpose, and the only problem with the enduring post-war peace had been the vacuum it left in its wake. Hence, perhaps, the city’s current reputation as a great place for a fight. Robbed of an enemy of the state, the locals had to make do by battering each other.

- p 196

9. Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?

Shamefully, I tend to read non-fiction – rather than fiction – but someone for whom I always find shelf space is Alan Furst. He’s made a fictional nest for himself in the darker reaches of the Thirties and early Forties, in various European settings. His use of both place and time are deeply evocative, and if I want to spend a scary evening in occupied Paris, I know exactly where to look.

10. What’s next for your protagonist?

That, I’m afraid, remains a secret because the series is now very close to an end and I wouldn’t want to rob you of a surprise or two. After the Faraday books, I’m shipping young D/S Jimmy Suttle down to the West Country (where we now live). Stay tuned…